McDonald's Coffee cupsMcDonald's (MCD) has finally made a move to revolutionize its ubiquitous cup. It's testing ways to finally ditch the foamy polystyrene cups that have accompanied the company's McFare for ages.

The material has several problems -- it's not commonly recycled, and its main component, styrene, has been labeled a likely carcinogen by the National Institutes of Health.

And come on, foam is so old-school. McDonald's stopped using foam food containers for its products in 1990, but it has been slow in making similar progress with cups. And it's not like it would be that hard: Coffee giant Starbucks (SBUX) hasn't had trouble using paper cups in its business, after all.

Feeling the Heat

Mickey D's will test new paper cups in 2,000 (15%) of its stores. Because paper cups can be recycled, McDonald's could greatly reduce its volume of waste byproducts by using recyclable for the billions and billions served by the fast-food giant.

These paper prototypes have another advantage. They will incorporate a "double-hulled" design to avoid an uncomfortable burning sensation from hot beverages.

Of course, McDonald's is concerned about burns: Over the past few decades, the company's been subject to numerous lawsuits from patrons scorched by hot coffee, and news of the latest lawsuits lodged came out this week.

McDonald's probably didn't just experience a sudden change of heart regarding its polystyrene use, though. Shareholder activist organization As You Sow has been pushing the fast-food giant to take a harder look at beverage containers and devise packaging recycling goals.

Happier Meals

Over the years, As You Sow has brought this issue to light at major companies like Dr Pepper Snapple Group (DPS), Starbucks, Yum! Brands (YUM), Coca-Cola (KO), and PepsiCo (PEP).

Gaining some traction at a massive company like McDonald's is a huge deal when it comes to improving practices all along consumption and supply chains. The Humane Society of America recently scored a victory when McDonald's pledged to engage with pork suppliers like Smithfield (SFD) about phasing out cruel gestation crates for breeding sows.

Big companies can make really big changes for the good when they put their ingenuity to the test. If McDonald's can get polystyrene out of the waste stream -- and enable more recycling of its food and beverage containers -- it could reduce a heck of a lot of wasteful pressure on the planet. That would create a much Happier Meal.

Motley Fool analyst Alyce Lomax owns shares of Starbucks. The Motley Fool owns shares of Starbucks, Coca-Cola, and PepsiCo. Motley Fool newsletter services have recommended buying shares of McDonald's, Starbucks, Yum! Brands, Coca-Cola, and PepsiCo. Motley Fool newsletter services have recommended writing covered calls on Starbucks and creating a diagonal call position in PepsiCo.

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36 Comments

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Davie2743

Paper cups are weak and inherently hotter raising the possibility of accidental burns.

March 27 2012 at 10:44 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
NKS55S

The breakfast platers are still styrene so what is the praise about. Mcdonalds does nothing on on its own untill the govvernment comes after them . It took them 25 yrs to do away with hydroginated oil and they still fought the government knowinf all this time that the hydrginated oil is a really bad health hazzard but it was cheaper for them to use to fry their french fries and they still use 25% of that oil today So Mcdonalds really does nothing for the consumer as far as health . Just how to make millions on the cheap at the expence of the consumers health , Totaly disgusting.

March 27 2012 at 9:01 PM Report abuse +2 rate up rate down Reply
larry

If they can recycle car and truck tires, why can't they figure out how to recycle McDonalds styro coffee cups ???

March 27 2012 at 8:32 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply
LosAngelesGeorge

Sometimes I drink McDonald's coffee. I usually drink Starbucks cofffee.

March 27 2012 at 7:18 PM Report abuse -1 rate up rate down Reply
starla

I really don't understand this. I haven't seen a McD's styrene coffee cup in ages. Around by me in Ct. they're all paper.

March 27 2012 at 5:55 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
fjbmanagement

Next step is to train the employees how to make the food properly and to ONLY put people that can CLEARLY speak English on the drive-thru and counters...

March 27 2012 at 3:25 PM Report abuse +5 rate up rate down Reply
magus47

Hope this is a better idea than putting the 'healthy' apples in the Happy meals. Anyone ever actually tatsed those things? YECCCCCCCH!

March 27 2012 at 3:06 PM Report abuse +2 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to magus47's comment
sulandherb

I had one of their salads that was apples (yep---yuck!) gross grapes, and wayyyy to sweet walnuts and "pudding" (supposedly yogurt??) Might as well have had a pink slime burger with fries.

March 27 2012 at 6:42 PM Report abuse +2 rate up rate down Reply
Michael Lacy

Styrene foam gets an undeserved bad rap. A Life Cycle Audit commissioned by the Oregon Dept. of Environmentally Quality clearly showed EPS foam (Styrofoam) is a more sound ecological choice than food- and forest-based products.

Polystyrene is not a carcinogen. Unlike paper, it is inert with no danger of emitting methane gases or leaching chemicals at its end of life.

The problem with Polystyrene is the lack of widely available recycling opportunities. Why doesn't McDonald's put EPS recycling bins at its locations? The carbon footprint and energy expended when harvesting, processing, transporting and recycling paper cups vs. foam is massively larger than when using EPS foam. Paper costs more because it takes more energy to make, transport and use.

Conversely foam cups are about 97% air.

March 27 2012 at 2:54 PM Report abuse +2 rate up rate down Reply
2 replies to Michael Lacy's comment
Sheryl

interesting--thank you!

March 27 2012 at 6:16 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply
sulandherb

Those of us who raise chickens-and I hear the same from duck owners- would have a bunch of cancer-ridden birds if styrofoam was a carcinogen. Most of us have found out the hard way not to use foam boards for insulation...for some reason, poultry LOVES to eat foam :) Now there's a recycling option (J/K)

March 27 2012 at 6:45 PM Report abuse +2 rate up rate down Reply
Kathleen

Why not use compostable plastics? I wish they would, I bought a bunch of stock in biodegradable plastics made from corn and I lost almost all of my money.

March 27 2012 at 2:19 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to Kathleen's comment
Michael Lacy

Kathleen, you mean modify a material that is inert at end-of life so that it emits Methane (a greenhouse gas) and leaches chemicals like paper does. EPS foam is beneficial to soil for preventing compaction. That is why so many potting soil marketers blend it into their products -- those little white balls. EPS foam can be broken into smaller pieces and used in potting soil or worked into garden soil, if your community does not offer recycling -- which they should.

March 27 2012 at 3:03 PM Report abuse +2 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to Michael Lacy's comment
Sheryl

i agree--they SHOULD!

March 27 2012 at 6:15 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down
avengingangel711

I believe they should go back to having "glass" or "plastic" cups for coffee and sodas. People can reuse them and or keep and collect...Just sayin...

March 27 2012 at 2:19 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply